Conflict and Crises

Japan at War: Kobe and the Exchange

by Roy M. Melbourne

THE MORNING OF December 8 (December 7 in the U.S.) was a Monday, and [British businessman] Colin Stanbury and I walked to the Shioya station on a warmish day. Colin in his customary style hailed the children with his “ohayo buchan” (Good morning, youngster), while the youngsters greeted him as “ohayo-san” (Mr. Goodmorning).

I swung, as customary, into the consulate’s rear entrance and found the Japanese employees huddled in the semi-gloom of drawn shades. Mr. Suzuki, in halting terms, said that war had started between Japan and America. Mary Ogawa, our receptionist and phone operator, confirmed this, and I raced upstairs to the consul’s office to find [Consul] Arthur Tower and [Executive Officer] Jerry Warner in a quick huddle. Tower was staying in Jerry’s house, both had heard radio news that morning of American installations in the Philippines being bombed, and had come prepared for the worst. Jerry had simply grabbed a tooth brush.

We quickly organized. Arthur and Jerry took care of the fee stamps and passports to be destroyed or mutilated as well as office seals. I handled certain office seals and confidential visa files. By 9:00 a.m. we started the destruction, burning papers in several fireplaces and even in coal scuttles. The Treasury attache was similarly busy. Mary was on the alert to warn us when the police or military came. Some time later I learned that she had used ingenuity to forestall what would have been a premature descent by the gendarmerie. She had one phone call, from a commercial firm next door, complaining that the burned ashes of paper from the chimneys were coming in their windows!

In Kobe I had affiliated with a Masonic lodge, and after monthly trips to Yokohama I received the thirty second degree. As lodge secretary one of my current actions was to place the large wooden box of lodge records in a filing cabinet among my personal papers. After the war, the reopened lodge was the only one whose records were intact.

I finished my portion of the destruction and had gone through my personal papers before I was told that the gendarmerie or kempei authorities had arrived. I locked the file cabinets in my area, and joined the others upstairs. This was about 11:00 a. m., two precious hours for needful steps, despite our earlier efforts to strip files and equipment to the minimum. It always takes longer than one might think. While I had been busy burning, Colin had come and left some traveler’s checks, which he hoped I could pass to his mother in England. We shook hands and he left, shortly to be imprisoned, then interned with other foreigners, and finally freed.

The kempei were clearly chagrined when they saw the burned paper in the fireplaces and the preparations made for their arrival. As they traversed the offices there was a lock cabinet ajar, which Jerry noticed and in which Arthur had just put the office accounts. Jerry moved over and found a pretext in answering how the cabinets worked to respond, “In this way,” and twirled the lock closed. We had lunch brought in from the Kobe Club, while the kempei waited for orders and took photos of the charred fireplaces. We took stock of our numbers. Dusty [Vice Consul Otis Rhoades] was on a courier trip to Tokyo and was under house arrest there. In addition to Arthur, Jerry, Martin Scott (the Treasury attache), and myself, there were nisei staff members: Mary, Martin’s secretary, Jerry’s secretary, and a male clerk Arthur had brought from Nagasaki.

Late in the afternoon we were bundled into cars and taken to the Tor Hotel, the second of Kobe’s two European-style hotels and up the hill from the commercial area. Here we were in separate rooms off a first floor corridor, each with black-out curtains. The next several days I was confined to my little hotel room with its bath; three times daily a guard would bring food, and that would be it. My room was bare except for a bed and a small table with a box of matches, so I spent hours making wooden fences and designs and counting wall patterns while huddled under a blanket, for it had turned cold.

After several days we were allowed to gather in Arthur Tower’s room to find, other than Mary, the nisei had left. She alone resisted the official and intimidating interrogation to which each of them had been subjected at kempei headquarters. She said she was an American, her folks had raised her as one, and she intended to remain so. Arthur had been taken to the consulate and threatened if he did not open the various safes and locks. He refused. He was a stubborn and courageous man, and I am sure he would have suffered bodily harm before giving in. In any event, the five of us had a chance to be together briefly, to gain moral support, and to respond to the kempei’s question whether we wished to be interned in the hotel or in Jerry’s house. We said the former and the next day were shifted to the latter.

Before leaving the hotel my obasan came with a suitcase of clothes from my town place, which in the guard’s presence she stiffly presented. He left us alone for a minute, at which the old girl broke down. She showed her true feelings by crying over the terrible war, while I sought to comfort her with a few words and personal good wishes. Those clothes were supplemented by others she brought from the house before leaving for her home village.

Jerry’s house was sizeable, with four bedrooms, one a sleeping porch. I had the latter, while next to me was Jerry, and down the hall on the same side were Arthur and Scotty. Across from them was Mary. There were also two bathrooms, one opposite mine and Jerry’s. Downstairs was a large general reception entrance with a fireplace and four guards, two on each twelve hour shift duty around the clock. This was house arrest. Jerry and Arthur converted a small, first floor storage room into a food and liquor storage area for shipments that only the week before had come through Japanese customs, a cache that proved a lifesaver in supplementing some meager fare. Our major base though, was the large living and dining rooms with a door into the big entry area. Scotty’s cook was permitted to work for us, while Jerry’s housemaid continued. Mary was in charge of them, and in one meal each day she prepared an American dish for five. The expenses were split four ways among the men, and for a period I was on credit, on the cuff as we joked, until the Swiss were able to allocate funds.

Details remain sharp. A small space along the side of the house, about 20-25 feet wide, had a path down the center 26 steps long and wide enough for two. Since Jerry was tall, it took him 24 steps. We had the numbers exactly. In the adjacent rear was a tennis court as part of the grounds of the British consul general. Later with routine established, we had the chance to talk with them briefly through the fence when their guards and ours were not around. Finally, we got permission to watch Jerry play tennis with them. We had no visitors or radio, but simply the Japanese press and three English language newspapers, the Japan Advertiser, the Osaka Mainichi (English edition), and Kobe Chronicle, wherein nothing cheered us as the tide of war swept the U.S. back throughout the Pacific. We could recognize that Singapore and Java had fallen, and in the Philippines, Corregidor too. Obviously staged, there was a photo of the tunnel at Corregidor lined on both sides with typewriters, but there was enough truth in this impression of bureaucracy to irritate.

The Foreign Service generally brings tolerance for religions and races. Many Protestant and Catholic missionaries claimed my regard for their faith and staunchness in adversity, since men of each Christian branch had suffered prior to our exchange. We also learned of the variation in treatment afforded American officials by the Japanese military. I cannot forget FSO Oliver Clubb, later hounded by a malicious senator, who endured six months harsh solitary confinement in Hanoi, where he had been consul, and who had come courageously through the ordeal. There were, of course, Japanese I liked and respected, and the many Japanese-Americans who stood by their country. I can understand, knowing these, the motivation of the legendary Hawaiian infantry battalion of Japanese-Americans that became the most decorated unit in the American army.

Our house routine quickly made a pattern. We would breakfast at 8:30 a.m., after which we could walk in the garden, read, study Japanese, or take a turn at “schnellbach” in the living room. It belonged to Jerry and was a Dutch game played on an elongated, raised sides ironing board on trestles, with four slotted compartments at one end into which we slid 20 wooden disks. Five disks in each slot gave a perfect 100 score. By the end of internment we all regularly scored in the 80s. At 10:30 a.m., Arthur and I would take a strenuous half-hour of calisthenics on the side terrace. Like Scotty, Mary took no exercise. Once when we teased her she silenced us by effortlessly doing a high, feet-to-hands back arch. She exercised privately.

I had gone to the Shioya gym classes regularly, and as the foreign community diminished, found myself in the last several months running the class, mostly with a few British, Dutch, and Swiss. Among the latter I remarked a bachelor Swiss named Bossert, a quiet, nice fellow with whom I was friendly. Here the exercise was an excellent way for Arthur and me to let off our nervous energy, and sometimes we did 45 minutes, but it was a strenuous daily session in which we consistently tried to exhaust ourselves. A shower followed. After lunch we again read or studied Japanese. We were fortunate that Jerry and Arthur had a wide collection of books, so in an atmosphere where you could place yourself in the era, I read Plutarch’s “Lives”, Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” Lawrence of Arabia’s “Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” and Shakespeare. We had two favorites, Mark Twain’s “Innocents Abroad,” the finest American travel book, and Roark Bradford’s “Old Man Adam and his Chillun,” source of the Pulitzer play “The Green Pastures.” Excerpts from these two certainly lightened our feelings.

An official ship exchange was on our minds, and we created a pool of dates when we might be exchanged for Japanese officials in the U.S. The latest date was early May. This came and went, and the pool stopped. I do not mean to exaggerate the conditions under which we lived. We had food and drink, which the Stateside stores of Jerry and Arthur supplemented, with what our cook purchased on the open market at inflated prices. Each Saturday night we made a special occasion, with one of the five seeing that my little portable record player kept going, as the other four played bridge, and we had extra drinks. There were breaks too, when we visited the tennis court and watched Jerry play with the English. On a few memorable occasions some of the British and an exuberant Australian sneaked into our living room through the side window, for we early established the practice that the guards would not come upstairs and into the living-dining room area. Thus, while we would see them in passing through the front entry hall, we could for a period be on our own.

What proved to be our only dissension was brought on by developing strains. Isolated as we were, Jerry and Scotty pressed Arthur to demand that we see the Swiss, our protecting power. Arthur resisted, not wanting to ask the Japanese military, asserting the Swiss were taking every practical way to reach us. In a climactic evening Mary sensibly retired and I, disturbed the difference could disrupt our unity, did my best to follow a lighter perspective, apparently bridging the two views, as Jerry later confided. Nevertheless, the frustrations of our internment remained significant.

When the Swiss did get to us, we had various difficulties to overcome with the Japanese for ordinary living arrangements, such as finances and the disposal of home effects. Three times all was supposedly set for an exchange and three times it was indefinitely postponed. While it finally took on the fourth attempt, to our knowledge, we were not optimistic that we would leave Japan. We certainly believed the United States would win the war, but we also knew enough elementary Japanese psychology to expect that after heavy bombing of the fragile cities and impending military defeat there would be small chance for any diplomatic exchange. A scorched earth, military dominant mentality gave little ground for comfort.

Considering the hundreds of thousands of Allied prisoners in East and Southeast Asia, and heavy American and Japanese future casualties in an invasion, there was no reason to decry the future use of the atomic bomb for a quick end to the war, seen, as in China, that Japan had lost the mandate of heaven. It was a subject we never talked about. Added to all this were various tensions with our guards, one of whom was obnoxious. Once I heard an argument between Arthur and the obnoxious guard, and plunged down the stairs in time to grab the poker he was aiming at Arthur’s head. We were not sure of the consequences, but fortunately there were none, for the guard had lost face.

Among the five of us we worked out an unspoken live and let live philosophy, realizing that we were in the same boat and had to get along. Each of us was entitled to his share of bad days and, again unspoken, two people could not have the same bad day. In this way we accommodated and found the qualities in each other. After all, we were together virtually every waking hour, so by June 1942, when we left Kobe, we had the equivalent of several years in a normal family. Arthur and Scotty I came to think of as uncles, Jerry as an older brother, and Mary as the lady of the family. The test came when on the exchange ship all four men ate together, and Mary couldn’t because women had a separate seating.

Arthur Tower tended to be reticent, a leader of our little group. In some ways he showed the strain more than the rest of us, but he had a quiet sense of proportion, his tensions were greatly relieved by the exercise, and he was a man I respected. Jerry Warner was a good companion, who did his reading, took his diversions in schnellbach and tennis, and studied his Japanese some six hours a day. He was a Japanese language officer, but he was striving to become more proficient to use it after we were exchanged. I liked his temperament.

Martin Scott was a Kentuckian with a keen mind and a grand sense of humor. He was a gentleman, and one who knew his bridge and juleps. As a Kentuckian, he had mint from his home planted on the side of our house and we had that home pride. I had earlier known him as a leading Kobe Club personality, highlighted by his semi-annual bar standing speech of that earthy American classic, “Change the name of Arkansas?” Being one of a foreigners’ local champion bridge team, he also taught us the game, but after internment and a game with an obsessive devotee, the contrast was too strong and I no longer play. Mary Ogawa was a graduate of the University of Idaho, who had to be the best humored of us all, with remarkable psychological strength. I think on occasion we men might have spoken out, perhaps to our regret, if she hadn’t been there.

Two memorable forays came about because of our combined campaign. First, we insisted on church at Easter and second, that each of us have a physical examination before leaving Kobe. The kempei finally agreed, and we went to a nearby Catholic church for the service. The guards stayed in the back of the church, while we split up and sat among the congregation. A young Eurasian woman I knew sat beside me, and we had an animated conversation without the guards knowing, during which I learned what was happening in the foreign community and gave her news of us. Then came individual visits to the doctor, a Czech. He gave me full marks, and when I told him of the strenuous physical routine, he shook his head.

There was a third sortie, this time to Shioya, where I made final disposal plans. The house was silent as somberly I surveyed it with a guard. On the stairway, by an impulse, I removed the only two articles I retained. They were Interport championship pennants that I could not leave, but hoped someday to deliver to [British businessman] Jackie Tarr, who had put them there. I succeeded.

Here I must recount Jackie’s saga. After training in India, he joined a Gurkha regiment that was captured at Singapore. He escaped and tramped the length of Sumatra to be picked up by a British destroyer that took him to Ceylon (Sri Lanka). He joined a second Gurkha outfit, fought through southeast Asia as a major, and was with the British during the Allied Occupation of Japan as a colonel. After resuming his shipping career, his last assignment was the Hong Kong office before retiring with his wife to a country cottage in his home county, Somerset. A married brother, also a retired colonel, lives nearby.

About noon on April 18, Patriot’s Day, two of us were watching Jerry play tennis when a plane came over the Rokko hills very low. It had markings we did not quickly note, but it headed to the port area, we heard the sound of bombs, and saw smoke rising. Our obnoxious guard, now jittery, herded us into the house. We were greatly excited, since we knew one of ours had been at work. A Doolittle raider had hit Kobe, although I was told later by a pilot on the raid that the plane and crew never made it. However, it was a harbinger, and culminated in a postwar Kobe unrecognizable from bombings.

I arranged to sell our effects in Shioya and to leave the returns with the Swiss to help Colin if it should be possible to get him the money. As well, my effects in the equipped town house were left and I was never to see them again, but our government later settled my wartime claims for a fraction of what they were worth, which thereafter made me wary when assembling new households. Insurance does not cover war or riot.

As an avocation while interned I followed the three English language newspapers and got Jerry in his reading of Japanese ones to pick items that would have a bearing on Japanese merchant shipping. In time I collected quite a bit, and about May began to draft a report, to which I added as fresh information or impressions came. When a definite date for our departure from Kobe was set, I finished the report. Mary typed it on flimsy paper, single spaced and no margins, and I tried to memorize the result if searched. Until arriving in Lourenço Marques I kept the report folded in my buttoned shorts pocket if our effects were examined. At Lourenço Marques, when we were free, I gave the report to a non-State official, which apparently was a bureaucratic mistake. There was no reaction from Washington, and I could only conclude its origin had disappeared. Although I was temporarily taken aback, this was not deep, for regardless of author the information was useful.

After some time the Swiss succeeded in visiting us infrequently, but became more regular when an exchange seemed definite and we prepared to leave Kobe. The day arrived, and we entrained for Yokohama under guard, being joined in Osaka by its four consular Americans. They had an easier time than we, and had even been allowed to go on outside forays.

We also found with us the Latin American consular people from Kobe, for the exchange comprised all countries in the Western Hemisphere. The Brazilian consul general in Kobe and his niece were along, and, after we arrived in Yokohama, to be held in the Grand Hotel, she entertained us every afternoon with a piano concert in one of the large reception rooms of the deserted hotel. We circulated freely in our segment of the hotel, and the stimulus of new faces and events helped. Noteworthy from the Peruvian consul, who had it from the Spanish ambassador as his protecting power, we got belated radio news of the battle of Midway. This really cheered us up!

The guards had us on a schedule. Each afternoon we went for a group walk, where once we happened to meet a group of consular personnel from Manchuria and Korea, interned with the Yokohama staff. We mingled, to the disgust of the guards, and were able to swap more information. Afterwards our walks were deliberately staggered, but that one time I did get some bad news. After Pearl Harbor, the Swiss legation at Tokyo increased personnel to look after Allied interests, and Bossert, my Shioya gym associate, was sent to check the American consular premises in Taihoku (Taipei), Formosa (Taiwan). The Japanese military were most reluctant to permit this. After an interval of no contact and when he should have returned, his legation received a cable from the authorities saying that Bossert’s body had been picked up in Nagasaki harbor, a suicide. The brutality sickened me.

Finally the promised day came and in mid-June we were taken to the Asama Maru, the exchange ship. There we were joined by our embassy crowd and other official personnel from the Western Hemisphere, by numbers of missionaries and their families, as well as by some businessmen. American officials and businessmen had been without their families, who left in November 1940. The missionaries had steadfastly refused to part with theirs, and it grated on some to see them all coming aboard, for the missionary component, we were told, had been an obstacle in the exchange. There were a few hitches that kept us in the harbor about a week but on June 25 we started for Lourenço Marques in Portuguese East Africa, now Mozambique.

We learned of the harsh treatment that numerous Americans received as prisoners supplemented by accounts of those shipped on at other scheduled stops. Our Tokyo embassy people told tales of the sweeping actions by the Japanese authorities on our embassy grounds and the delaying tactics that were used on press messages, in effect, to invoke a complete censorship. The bulk of our non-official Americans told of prolonged prison and military interrogations. Psychologically many were conditioned not to hope for any release or exchange for Japanese in the Western Hemisphere. There were, of course, treatment inequities on both sides in the course of the war, such as our mass relocation of Japanese-Americans, but their own experiences were vivid to our internees. Many years later, a Dutch national on a world cruise recoiled when he saw the seated line of uniformed Japanese immigration officials at our cruise port. The memories of his Java prison were too strong, he said, and he remained aboard.

At that time members of the Service were accused of being out of touch with America, whereas this idea was not broached for respected Americans who had long professional residence abroad. Early on the ship I had a conversation with a missionary who was quite concerned about the ability of Americans to meet with equal vigor the fighting qualities instilled in the Japanese. Hiding my resentment at his thinking and feeling he was brainwashed by years of Japanese propaganda, I told him forthrightly that we could bank on our Americans to do the job.

The ship was very crowded and, aside from ambassadors and most senior officers, we were housed in compressed steerage compartments of eight bunks each. Adjacent steerage sections held people like Charles (Chip) Bohlen, the Second Secretary in Tokyo, who became an outstanding career ambassador. When we picked up those in Hong Kong, Joe Alsop, the later well-known columnist, shared my transformer for our electric razors. The food was deliberately terrible, causing digestive problems, and one acquaintance, a Maryknoll priest, used to close his eyes and stab with his fork. There was no empty space, even on deck, but the weather was good.

On the way we were joined by an Italian ship from Shanghai, the Conte Verde, caught there by the war and now carrying the people from China which paralleled our course, say a half mile or more, as we rolled along. While the two ships traveled with full lights and huge electric light crosses amidships on both sides, we were happily unaware that an American submarine stopped seconds short of delivering a torpedo attack on the Conte Verde. A fifth immunity message, the earlier four not received, was decoded just in time, according to Clay Blair, Jr. in his book “Silent Victory,” Volume 1.

From a distance, Hong Kong was a shattered hulk as the result of the fighting, and our men there, including Bob Rinden [previously assigned in] Montreal, had some hard stories. At one point the consular staff had been lined up in the belief they were to be shot. In the Saigon River we took on more passengers, including my Fletcher [School of Law and Diplomacy] friends, Harlan Clark from Bangkok and Kingsley Hamilton from Saigon. We were told that the Asama Maru, after adding our repatriates from Hong Kong and Saigon, had about 900 passengers and our companion ship, the Conte Verde, carried about 600, so both ships were crowded. Yet we were all United Nations nationals, so despite the known presence of police agents among the crew, we were comfortable to be with our compatriots. Voyaging on, by the first week in July we were, they said, at Singapore. Although out sight of land, Japanese military aircraft flew over us for two days until we departed across the Indian Ocean for Lourenço Marques, beyond Japan’s military control.

A fellow inmate of my steerage quarters was an Osaka vice consul who met a Navy nurse being repatriated after her capture on Guam. They fell in love and were determined to marry. Fred Mann received his orders for Brazzaville, French Equatorial Africa (now Congo), and Jo Fogarty was under naval regulations. Despite residence requirements, different religions and professional disciplines, within the exchange ships stay, they were married and proceeded to Brazzaville. Afterwards I saw them in Washington.

Every life has exceptional days, but a personal best was July 23rd [1942], when we entered the harbor at Lourenço Marques. The first sight was an American flag freighter (later sunk, we heard) near the entrance. It blasted its whistle and we all cheered, because we felt near the end of a trying period. The Japanese and Italian ships docked end to end, and ahead of us waiting was the Swedish ship, Gripsholm, with its Japanese cargo from America. The time was not long, but it seemed so the next day as we collected our gear. Single lines went down the gangplanks, the Allied contingent walking on one side of a long warehouse, while the Japanese took the other. Our people were only able to take what they could carry, but we were told the Japanese had been given generous limits, including refrigerators.

In the midst of this there was a small scene. Japanese youngsters from the stern of the Gripsholm and American children from the bow of the Asama Maru, began talking to each other to compare notes on the food aboard. This is what interested them as they talked to their peers.

When we reached the decks of the Gripsholm there was tremendous confusion. Suitcases were strewn all over, and everyone was carrying on animated conversations. There was some official order in the turbulence, since I got my next assignment. It was telegraphed, and assigned me to Istanbul — a crusher. I wanted to get into the war, so as soon as possible I wired the Department requesting leave of absence to join the armed forces. I thought with my experience on Japanese shipping that I could be useful to Naval Intelligence, and I wanted to see some action. I got a brief reply denying my request and ordering me to proceed as directed. I knew by then that no one could travel without official orders and, not satisfied, sent a dispatch making my request at length and by protocol addressing it to the Secretary of State. Later in Istanbul I received a reply which, although longer than the earlier telegram, said the same.

There were a few rosy days as we all celebrated freedom and friendship, and one of the most vigorous was Rhody [language officer Monroe Hall] of Shanghai. When I asked why the notable extra enthusiasm, he gave his reasons. Notification of a promotion had been awaiting him. Next, an aunt he had not seen for years had died and left him a mink farm. And lastly, his ex-wife had remarried, and this meant no more alimony! With my friends, we younger ones did our celebrating ashore.

The time came for the Gripsholm to leave, and in the prior evening I searched the ship, finding each of my surrogate family. On reaching home I later learned of our group’s various assignments. Arthur performed war-related work in the Department. Scotty, in San Francisco, had a like Treasury mission. Jerry followed Japanese activities from a post in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Mary, on Jerry’s strong recommendation, worked for G-2 of the Army upon Pacific order of battle intelligence.

For the present, from the cliff beside our hotel and with a new Foreign Service group, I silently watched the ship’s morning departure. My mood reflected a vagrant Churchillian aphorism:

Courage is the one virtue that makes all of the others possible.

Excerpted from Roy M. Melbourne, Conflict and Crises: A Foreign Service Story. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1993. Used by kind permission of the author.

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